Tommie Experts: Saving Catholic Schools

Research shows that a higher percentage of Catholic high school students go on to graduate from an institute of higher education than do public school students. During a November 2021 panel discussion, the Catholic Community Foundation (CCF) of Minnesota pointed to U.S. Department of Education data to show the value in saving K-12 Catholic schools.

Father Christopher Collins
Father Christopher Collins
Mark Brown

Father Chris Collins, SJ, vice president for mission at the University of St. Thomas, was on the CCF panel to share his thoughts on establishing a pipeline that will keep Catholic school doors open to everyone as a way to build a more equitable society.

“All students should have access to a Catholic school,” he said during the CCF event titled the Giving Insights Educational Forum. Catholic elementary and secondary schools are an answer to leveling the playing field for disenfranchised children, he discussed.

African American and Latino students who attend a Catholic school are 42% more likely to graduate from high school on time and 2.5 times more likely to attend college, according to DOE data.

"If children don’t graduate from high school, they are far more likely to be unemployed, more likely to live in poverty, more likely to be incarcerated, they are even more likely to be dead by the age of 30," said panel moderator Ricky Austin, vice president of the Aim Higher Foundation, which provides tuition assistance scholarships so that more children in the 12-county Twin Cities metro area can attend Catholic schools.

The future of Catholic schools are at risk, however. Over the last two decades, more than 20 local Catholic schools have shut down. But there’s hope. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of Minneapolis-St. Paul area Catholic school students has been on the upswing.

More than 1,000 new students, kindergarten through eighth grade, enrolled in a Catholic school in the greater Twin Cities in fall 2020 than in the previous year, according to the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence. The center, established by Best Buy founder Dick Schulze who also established the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at St. Thomas, is among the many organizations and individuals advocating that Catholic schools are worth saving.

Here are five additional observations based on questions that Collins, a former Minnesota high school teacher, answered during the panel discussion.

What challenges exist today when it comes to making sure that all K-12 students have access to a Catholic education?

Operational challenges are the first thing that comes to mind for me. In the 20th century, we were blessed with tens of thousands of special women running all of these schools with very little resources; that was a unique moment in church history [that allowed us] to grow these institutions. With fewer sisters today, a big crucial point is teacher recruitment and teacher retention.

Father Chris Collins speaks at Catholic Community Foundation event November 2021Father Chris Collins pictured with co-panelist Yen Fasano, associate director of Catholic Schools: Drexel Mission Schools Initiative, Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis Catholic Center.

I taught high school a few different times in many areas. It is very tough, and you need a lot of resources. You are trying to do a million things. In addition to your lesson plans, you are putting out a lot of fires during the day. That takes an emotional toll, so there needs to be emotional and certainly spiritual support for those teachers who are going to bring stability to a school building and the lives of students. That’s one aspect that I think is really crucial.

There are all sorts of social services needed for the students and the environment of the school. It takes a lot, especially these days with the acute mental health challenges that are rampant for young people and the consequences of that for teachers too. They need that kind of support as well.

Where are the teachers going to keep coming from and how will we keep good teachers dedicated?

There is an immense amount of support that is really required to grow that teacher pipeline.

The salaries are certainly key. We also need to create a culture where early on young people get a little taste of education and the rewards that are there to support those pathways, even starting in high school doing tutoring. 

Catholic schools and universities are giving those tutoring opportunities, but can we line that up better and give extra support to really make that a genuine possibility for a vocation to explore teaching and to remain dedicated.

It’s also important to recruit students who are future teachers who will look like the students they are recruiting. And also having on the university side, scholarship funding for future teachers.

What about partnerships and other school models as a way to save Catholic schools?

I think we have to think about the governance model. The days, in my mind at least, of a parish school being able to run autonomously with a principal and a pastor – it still happens – but it is getting more and more rare and more and more difficult to survive like that. And it is a wasted opportunity if we try to go it alone. There are tremendously gifted and smart and capable lay people in all sorts of walks of life who could really be giving a great deal of expertise and raising the profile of what the schools are doing. It can be so powerful if we align the different kinds of institutions we have in any civic arena.

Father Chris Collins with Elias J. Moo (right), superintendent of Catholic Schools, Archdiocese of Denver.

Everything is different, but the governance model is where we can take the risk of losing a little bit of control and then gaining a huge amount of expertise and goodwill and dollars, to be honest. But especially with the expertise in the governance practices, I think there are huge opportunities.

We can use our alumni network of Catholic schools that give people an opportunity from different backgrounds in business, marketing and finance and so on to contribute to governance.

Research shows a list of benefits for Catholic schools and the benefits increase the more disenfranchised the student is. It’s a complex recipe, but what are some of the key ingredients?

Some of it is the intangibles. It’s a sense of community and an ethos in a Catholic school, especially mission schools, that continues to move on afterward, as well. If the family is at the church as well as the school, there are so many layers of the sense of belonging from the church and family and the relationships built. Those relationships keep going for the rest of a person’s life and a sense of giving back that comes from that Catholic ethos.

There is all kinds of research if a school folds, and especially in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, it really wipes out a neighborhood after that. There are all kinds of studies, civically, about losing the whole social fabric of the neighborhood Catholic school.

How do mission schools increase civic engagement and civility?

On civic engagement, ideally in religious education you’re learning about things like forgiveness, redemption, we are all sinners, we are all loved, the basics, share, go out of yourself, help other people. 

Flashbacks in my own educational experience: When we were eighth graders, we had to coach the kindergartners in a big whiffle ball tournament. We spent months with these kindergartners. You’re growing up, you have gifts and you have to start sharing them within the school.

Later on, in high school, they made us do service work. I was in Dallas the last year of high school and we’d spend every Friday in senior year working in a homeless shelter in South Dallas. That was incredibly eye-opening for me and unsettling and uncomfortable. The Catholic schools that put students out into uncomfortable situations with different kinds of people, oftentimes marginalized people, and vulnerable people – that touches the heart. And then to be able to reflect on that later, and what is going on in my own heart and my own desires and what’s God doing in the midst of all this and who is Jesus now that I’m encountering other people that are less fortunate. That’s a huge part of giving awareness of civic needs and also that I have gifts to contribute.